SAN ANTONIO Long before the Ohio State basketball season started, all the buzz was about this phenomenal high school player the Buckeyes were getting from Indianapolis.
Everybody assumed that meant Greg Oden.
And although the seven-foot Oden has been outstanding, his high school teammate at Lawrence North has stepped out of that considerable shadow and made a name for himself, as well.
Mike Conley Jr., who has played on the same team with Oden since their middle school days, has willed the Buckeyes through some tough spots, and taken the team on his back on a number of occasions.
Yesterday, it was Conley, not Oden, who was honored as the most outstanding player in the NCAA South Regional.
I m not surprised, not at all, Oden said. I ve been watching Mike do what he does for a long time. When things get tight, he takes over. He does a lot of things with his heart.
Conley had 19 points, 2 steals, 2 assists, and went 9-of-10 at the foul line as he led Ohio State to a 92-76 win over Memphis, and a trip to the Final Four.
Memphis big man Joey Dorsey was in foul trouble all day, and went scoreless in the game, but it was Conley, not Oden that put him in that situation.
Conley s spinning, twisting, herkey-jerkey drives to the basket gave Memphis fits.
He is really good, Memphis coach John Calipari said. Our whole thing was don t try and steal the ball from him you re not going to get it. The ball is on a string.
He s not a great shooter, but he makes every free throw, and he hits that three. He s my kind of guy. Doesn t matter what it looks like, but at gut-check time, he s making it.
Conley s hands have been at the controls as the top-ranked Buckeyes have won 21 straight games, and swept the Big Ten regular season championship, the Big Ten tournament title, and now the NCAA tournament South Regional crown.
Coach Matta told me all along that him and me are the only ones who really knew just how good Mike was, Oden said. But I think other people are finding out. When he plays like that in the NCAA tournament, it s hard to keep it much of a secret.
Conley said coming in as a freshman and running the team has been a difficult task, as has the challenge of living up to the expectations the Buckeyes have had placed on them.
It s been real hard, Conley said about Ohio State s march to college basketball s biggest stage this weekend in Atlanta. We ve been through a lot of ups and downs with this team. We ve tried to keep a lot of that stuff within the team, and we ve done a good job of that. I think that s one of the things that s made us so good, so far.
SCRAP FEST: Memphis coach John Calipari said he was convinced the only way to beat the Buckeyes was to be mean and relentless.
We had one hope, and that was to outscrap them, be nasty, beat them to balls, dunk on them that was our hope, Calipari said. I hate to tell you this, but they outscrapped us.
ODEN CONFUSION: When asked after the game how big a factor Ohio State seven-footer Greg Oden s presence in the middle was, and how much he disrupted things for the Tigers, Memphis guards Jeremy Hunt and Chris Douglas-Roberts could not find common ground.
It really wasn t his presence [that changed the Memphis attack], Hunt said.
His presence was a big factor, Douglas-Roberts said.
NCAA BITS: The Buckeyes have won 21 straight, and are going to the Final Four for the first time since 1999. ... Ohio State coach Thad Matta is 80-21 in three seasons with the Buckeyes. ... Senior Ron Lewis is averaging 24 points per game in the NCAA tournament. ... The 92 points the Buckeyes scored yesterday are their most since a season-opening win over VMI, in which Ohio State scored 101.